One of the many things NASA does really well is attending to worker morale. Since the 1960s, the Space Flight Awareness program has helped workers at every level of the program understand the importance of their jobs and connect their roles to the “big picture” of manned spaceflight.
On March 3, 2003, barely one month after the Columbia accident, former astronauts Wally Schirra and Jim Lovell came to Kennedy Space Center to encourage to workers who were still grieving over the loss of Columbia.
Both men were well acquainted with the risks inherent in manned space flight. Schirra was one of the original Mercury astronauts and command pilot of the Gemini 6 mission, which had the first launch pad abort of America’s manned space program. When the engines of his Titan II booster ignited and then shut down, all indications in the capsule were that the vehicle had lifted off. Rules said that Schirra and Tom Stafford should have “punched out,” ejecting from the capsule. However, Schirra believed he had not felt any motion, so he stayed put. His gutsy call saved the capsule and allowed the mission to fly again a few days later. Schirra later commanded Apollo 7, NASA’s first manned mission after the fire that killed the three-man crew of Apollo 1.
Lovell had flown on Gemini 7, the first two-week spaceflight, as well as Apollo 8, the first mission to circle the Moon. Lovell was commander of Apollo 13 and was supposed to walk on the Moon. Instead, a deep-space explosion led to a harrowing several days in which the world watched anxiously and hoped that the crew would make it home alive.
Schirra and Lovell toured the hangar where debris from Columbia was being examined and reconstructed. Mike Leinbach recalled, “They thanked everybody in the hangar for their devotion to the cause. It was as close to a pep talk as you can have in that kind of situation. It was really good, almost like having your grandfather come and talk to you.”
The two men also visited several other sites at KSC to talk to people who were working on the remaining three shuttles. Later, they spoke to a gathering of KSC employees hosted by KSC Director Roy Bridges. They offered their thoughts on the accident and the future of the manned space program.
Lovell said he was at the airport when news of the accident broke. The prevailing mood he observed was not resignation, but rather one of loss. He said, “The public had become complacent with the routine of space launches, but every once in a while it comes back to remind us that this is a risky business. Everyone I talk to says this should not stop the program, we should find out the cause. We have an obligation now not just to our own country but our international partners.”
At the conclusion of the program, Schirra encouraged KSC’s team with Gus Grissom’s famous “Do good work.” Lovell added, “We have a great program. Keep charging. Don’t give up.”
Such words may seem trite to some people, but they were a much needed balm to the still-shaken workers at Kennedy Space Center.
In times of tragedy and self-doubt, it never hurts to be reminded that what you do matters—that it’s important to refocus and give your all, even when the situation seems hopeless or desperate.
Thanks to tens of thousands of people who each did their part as individuals and supported each other in their teams, the collective willpower of the NASA family got the shuttle flying again.